Carroll And Ex-Trojan Greats Visit USS Stennis At Sea

July 8, 2008

A few weekends ago (June 21-22), I had a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I had been asked to put together a trip with recent and prominent USC football alumni to go visit members of our US Navy and Marines aboard an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. After months of planning, the final group of Trojans that made the trip was Pete Carroll, Matt Leinart, Steve Smith, Brad Budde, Ron Yary and me, as well as several others connected to USC in one way or another.

The trip started Saturday morning from North Island Naval Air Station, which is located on Coronado Island in San Diego. We boarded a C-2 Greyhound (see the picture), with helmets and goggles on, no windows, seated backwards and strapped in. This was not luxury travel. But we were all excited. We were flying out to land on the USS John C. Stennis - a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier that was back from missions on the other side of the world and was conducting training operations a few hundred miles off the coast of California/Mexico.

The C-2 was loud - so loud we couldn't even talk to the person next to us, and of course - with no windows - we couldn't see anything. When we were approaching the carrier, one of the crew in the back of the plane (where we were facing) started making hand signals so we knew we were close. But waiting for impact and the 'arrested landing' - where a cable grabs a hook from the plane and stops you before you head into the ocean - was tense. No one knew what to expect, and we were all high with anticipation. We hit the flight deck, the cable grabbed us, and we slammed to a stop, and within 10-seconds, the back of the plane starts opening up and it was as though we were watching some high definition plasma screen unfolding before us. We were on a flight deck, looking at Navy crewmen running around in their color-coded uniforms, with F-18s and Prowlers taxiing around getting ready for flight, with the ocean and blue sky as the magnificent backdrop. It was surreal.

Over the next 24 hours, there wasn't much we didn't see. We watched F-18's take off and land from 15 yards away... first during the day, and then night landings as well (very cool). We met with the ship's commanders, including Captain Bradley Johanson - who was a great host, and were treated to first-hand accounts of their experiences as well as seeing the enormous responsibilities they carry out every day. We dined with the officers, had breakfast with the enlisted sailors, and saw everything from the high-technology combat direction center, to weapons and ordnance areas, to the repair shops for the jets, to the kitchens and bakeries that make sure the almost 5,000 member crew stay fed - - all along the way meeting the 18- to 22-year-old enlisted men and women that make it all happen.

After dinner Saturday night, we were led into the ship's hangar bay, which is the large area under the flight deck where massive elevators take jets and helicopters down into the ship for service and maintenance. Being so close to San Diego, a lot of planes had made their way back to shore, and the area was pretty open. We walked in to find an enormous line of sailors waiting for autographs, and the ship's Funboss (yes, that's his title), had gotten enough autograph footballs that anyone who wanted one had one, and for the next 2 hours, we must have signed approximately 1,000 autographs. Ron Yary was showing off his NFL Hall-of-Fame ring to anyone who asked. Brad Budde was getting high-fives from Kansas City Chiefs fans, and was told several times that 'the Chiefs suck' by Raiders and Broncos fans. Steve Smith was the toast of the ship, as the Giants fans were loud and proud, and they all wanted to celebrate the Super Bowl win by taking a picture with Steve. And of course Matt and Pete were Matt and Pete... the most recognizable of all of us who everyone wanted to see and be around.

(Left to right): Ron Yary, Brad Budde, Steve Smith, Matt Leinart, Jeremy Hogue, Pete Carroll

One of the highlights for me was watching Pete Carroll and Matt Leinart - as only they can do - break from the autograph table and start a spontaneous game of catch with well over 3-dozen sailors, all of whom wanted to catch a pass. It was fantastic... and I was jealous. Even the next day, when on a tour of another area, we walked by and saw some guys playing a game of touch football, and it was all Pete could do not to jump right in and start playing ball with the guys (I looked at him and I could see it in his eyes), and the rest of us all felt the same.

The only negative of the trip, if you can call it that, was trying to go to sleep one-level below the flight deck in the exact spot that F-18s were taking off until 2:30 in the morning... and then getting the wake-up call at 5:45 for breakfast at 6:00. But the adrenaline took over and everyone was fine.

By early Sunday afternoon, we were on our way back to the flight deck to board our C-2 and get launched via catapult off of the ship and into the air for the flight back to San Diego. We all thought the landing was intense, but all we kept hearing was - 'wait until your cat shot.' They were right. Like before, we were strapped in, facing backwards in the plane, no windows, so loud you couldn't hear, and no real way to know when it was coming... and then - bam - we go from 0-200+ mph in under 3 seconds and every part of my body became one with the straps that were holding me in my seat. It was the best roller coaster I've ever been on, and I was glad it was loud so no one could hear me scream.

The 24+ hours we spent with the men and women of our Navy were fantastic. There were cool things to do - landing, launching, touring, being on the flight deck - but to be honest, the best part was the people. No matter how much people talk about supporting our armed services, there is no way to give these men and women enough credit for what they do. And beyond their skill and training and hard work, it was incredible to see their upbeat attitudes, the pride they take in what they do, and the respect with which they treated us and each other. I expected them to be excited to see us, but they were amazing in their graciousness and their thankfulness that we would simply come see them. We tried as much as possible to turn it around and say 'thank you' to them... but we couldn't express it as much as we felt it. All Americans should be proud. The best part of the trip is thinking that we made these guys and gals feel good and appreciated. Having organized the trip, it was a fantastic feeling to watch the faces light up as guys saw Pete Carroll, or girls took pictures with Leinart, or Giants fans reminisced about the Super Bowl with Steve Smith, or anyone and everyone stood in the shadow of big Ron Yary. To see what we saw, and to be able to bring some appreciation to these men and women... that was the biggest treat.

And I couldn't have been prouder of Pete, Matt, Steve and the others for the way they responded to the sailors and genuinely felt the same way I am describing here. They never tired of the autographs or photos... going strong for 27+ hours with little to no sleep walking from corner to corner throughout the floating city that is the USS Stennis, which has no elevators! Even 63-year old Ron Yary, who is still a 6'7', 350-pound giant of a man, never tired of walking up and down the ladders to the 10+ floors we kept traversing despite having hips that have been replaced. And this wasn't done for press or PR or photo opportunities. I invited them and they came. All Trojans should be proud.

And while I personally want to thank all these guys for taking time out of their busy schedules to do this, and others like John Hamilton for presenting me with the opportunity, the icing on the cake was that they - at the end of it all - were the ones thankful that they went on the trip. I know this because each one of them came up and told me before we pulled out of the parking lot. That's the type of weekend it was.

(Jeremy Hogue started at center for USC in 1994 and 1995. In 1995, he was named an Academic All-American first teamer and National Football Foundation Scholar Athlete.)